Monday, April 9, 2012

You and Your Boring Numbers

Sell, sell, sell. Market your book, pimp it like a mofo, tell us all about those numbers.

Man, is that shit ever boring.

I just read a blog post from a writer who has been hanging in that weird ether between commercial success (you know, where, say, James Patterson hangs) and total oblivion (where, well, guys like me make their home) for a long time now. The post was all about the amazing number of books he sold recently. In fact, MOST of this guy’s posts are about that subject; when they aren’t about that, they’re about other writer’s sales figures.

I can take a little bit of this kind of thing. Just a little bit. And then I start feeling sick to my stomach. Why? Because I’m not a whore, I guess.

Maybe I’m not being fair? After all, most of us want to sell more books, yeah? We want to be able to do something as simple and basic as make a decent living.

But what price are we willing to pay for that? Are we ready to go the whole hog, focus ourselves so intently on marketing strategies and promotional blitzes that we lose sight of the work itself? Because, let me tell you, the blog post in question was written so poorly, so haphazardly, that I wondered a little how this writer made it as far as he has.

The tone of the post was really… combative, also. I don’t know why. And it seemed to suggest that, if you really want to obtain commercial success, you need to remove yourself from those “lesser” beings known as independents.

Perhaps I was misreading it… or maybe it was just so poorly constructed that the true point was lost somewhere amidst all the crowing about sales numbers and “units” moved.

Any writer who refers to books as “units” needs to be smacked in the mouth. Let the suit-and-tie types with dollar signs for eyeballs talk like that, not you, the writer. Have some respect for your craft.

A little less focus on numbers and a little more focus on quality might be in order.

Once in a while, I’ll take a stab at promotional stuff, just to see if I can find a way to get my work in front of a bigger audience. But I don’t invest a great deal of time in it. I’d like to make more money (ANY money, actually), but I don’t have much interest in writing anything commercial. It’s just not what I do, and it never has been. My goal as a writer is to stay absolutely true to myself. You know what I mean? If the world’s tastes suddenly change and my sort of work becomes mainstream out of nowhere, well… fine. I wouldn’t complain. But I have no intention of tailoring what I do to fit a bigger audience.

Because of that, promotional stuff is only going to take me so far. So why not just concentrate on becoming better and better at what I do?

I know that there are some of you reading this who might think I’m being pretentious. That’s fine. Maybe I am. But while I don’t take myself too seriously as a writer, I DO take my writing seriously. I’m not messing around here. This is about craft and… yes, even art. And it means everything to me.

That’s something that’s not said often enough. Most of us are too embarrassed to say it out loud. But it’s true.

I just hate to see it cheapened by such a fixation on commerce.


  1. The trick, I think, is to get to where you can do both - write what you mean to write, and also get paid handsomely (or at all).

    If I knew how to perform this trick, I'd be typing this comment from my villa on Kauai.

    It may be that it involves a little deal-making with the Big Goat downstairs. Next time I see Robert Johnson hanging around my house (this happens when I have too much bourbon out of a plastic bottle), I'll ask.

  2. I am so with you on this, Heath. Just don't have either the stomach or knack for it. We write because we don't like being salesmen.

  3. I think I know exactly whose post you've read. Made me cough too

  4. I read a post the other day that described those types as a cross between a ferris wheel and a werewolf. I couldn't bear being that type of a person. The writing has to stand on its own and all the selling in the world isn't going to make a bad writer rich or even read.

  5. I am guilty of this here recently. I got blown away by selling over 100 ebooks in a month. It was huge for me, but has since abated, and I am now back to relative obscurity.

    But, yeah, it kinda sucks.

    1. Jason, I don't mean to say that we can't be proud of ourselves when we do well; I just mean that we should be wary of mistaking good sales with quality.

  6. AMEN! Units, eh? Kind of like the salesman down at the Foot Plex figuring how many pairs of pumps he moved..

    The other guy is the one who's enamored of the "readers" who took his free book, omitting the fact that there are hordes of barely literate people who haunt the net for free offerings and have hundreds if not thousands of those freebies on their ereaders, most of which will never get read. But, he's got readers... many of whom will provide reviews as soon as they can locate their box of crayons...

  7. Dear sir,
    I submit to you the following to consider. If one measures his success in how many "units" he can move, then I suppose that someone has a sense of self worth based on his bragging rights, and therefore the higher the numbers, the better the person they are. I was once posed this question by an economics teacher. "How many of you can make a better hamburger than McDonalds?" Several people including myself raised our hands secure in the knowledge that we could. He then queried, "So why aren't you richer than McDonalds?" If you can make a better burger, you should out sell them easily." McDonalds' used to post on their signs they're vast numbers of sales of burgers sold. Now I believe it says "Billions and Billions Sold". The idea of which I believe to make cows surrender. The "secret" to their success is not that they make a good hamburger, but that they make okay hamburgers fast and easy.
    But then, where is the quality?
    If sir you believe that turning out a good quality story is better than sales figures, If you prefer to be recognized for your work rather than yours "units", then you may never become rich, but your works will be setting on someones nightstand while others' will still be sitting on 25 cent shelf at the goodwill store.
    You could always sell out to get those numbers, but you'll never beat out the phone book.

  8. I guess I'm just tired of the idea that we, as writers, shouldn't think of ourselves as craftsmen or artists, and that instead we should be "savvy businessmen". Like that's a more palatable public image, and that having respect for what we do makes us foolish or pretentious. When writing is treated like any other commercial venture, I am annoyed by it.

    1. As we all should be.

  9. This is what I'm talking about when I say I love this blog.

  10. Do you have link to this blog... I would love to read it... I am a sucker for examples of bad writing.


    1. Whit, I'd rather not do that. Let's call the writer in question "Anon". I'm not trying to start a flame war or anything, and I don't want this to be interpreted as a personal attack on him.

  11. The meeting place between art and business has always been a bit dodgy. Once you realise you can do certain things to trick people into wanting something it's easy to turn into a salesman or a brand (Patterson!). The internet sort of allows people to avoid that, but also spams the hell out of them to go along with it at the same time. Hopefully the access the internet provides for us to find things of value will outweigh the junk it pours in our direction.

  12. I've always written and drawn, and would continue to do so even if I didn't have a chance at publication. How do I know this? Because I've been doing it my whole life anyway. Getting the stuff published is great because other people can read it and enjoy it (or not, as in some of my readers' cases). Selling out and becoming commercial has always been the redheaded step-child of the Art World, but if it afforded me more time to write (and less time grading papers in this office) I'd be a happy camper. When I pray to the Eye in the Sky I ask for enough money to live on--I don't need to win the whole $300 million, but $500,000 of it would be nice.

  13. Great post, Heath. I think it's very easy to become obsessed with numbers and see that as validation of one's work - kind of like a perverse paraphrase of the old Spillane maxim 'If the public likes you, you're good.' In this case, if I sell enough 'units', I must be good.

    Numbers are pointless if nobody likes the work in question, or if folks think it's badly written. If this guy is as poor as you suggest then his bubble is bound to burst sooner rather than later.

    Just keep doing what you're, Heath - your work is excellent - and people like us will keep reading it, reviewing it, and sooner or later the word will spread.

  14. I won't lie, if I can make a living writing THE STORIES I WANT TO WRITE, then I will gladly do so. If not, I'm keeping the day job. Writing is a pleasurable activity to me, but I would liken it to a tough workout. It's not something I enjoy doing all the time, but I like the results- a story I'm proud of. If I can be paid for my labors, even better. I prefer it that way, and I do believe that people will pay for something they enjoy, whether it is a hand made burger of ground sirloin, or a hastily made Big Mac slathered in mayonnaise to make it go down easy.

    Meaning, don't write off money entirely; I still think selling books to readers shows that you're doing something right. However, it shouldn't be the only motivation, and how many you sell does not mean your story is always the better one.

    I know writers who complain all the time about the latest best seller- mocking The Hunger Games and saying they'll write a "lame post-apocalyptic young adult novel and retire to a private island." It's so easy, huh? Where's your island, then? And then there are those who embrace poverty, like literary monastics whose writing is an illuminated manuscript meant only for the most clever and astute readers, and that's why no one buys their work.

    Writers deserve to be paid fairly for our work from publishers, but no writer is owed a living. Your work needs to find readers. How many readers is up to you. If you want to sell Big Macs, it is not as easy as it looks. You can copy one Big Mac somewhat easily, but you need to sell billions. You need a whole menu, which means writing prolifically, and writing work that readers can devour quickly like potato chips, always wanting more. Good luck. If that's what you want, go for it.

    Lawrence Block is pretty prolific. I'm sure he's no James Patterson, but he makes a living writing. He wrote an excellent post about making a living as a writer, which doesn't obsess on money. It's sound financial advice for ANYONE, really. And Mr. Block goes on exotic vacations quite often. He's doing well, and he writes books he's proud of. He even mentions the moment he decided to stop writing books he wasn't proud of, for the money. It's a great read.

    Me, I'm keeping the day job. Why? Because 1) I have a creeping feeling that the audience for the stories I love to write won't be large enough to support my family, 2) I don't want to be tempted to write someone else's favorite story for the money, and 3) I'm not sure I write fast enough to live on.
    I'm sure some will scoff- writer friends seem to think I have a huge output- but I write every day and only manage a few pages. Pros are much more prolific. Maybe I'll be there someday, but I'll be happy to write the books I want to write, find a home for them, and hear back from enough readers that publishers will take a look at my next one with interest.

    I don't think it's pretentious to want to be above the money, nor do I think it less artistic to see writing as a job. Perhaps it's just that if someone is selling books, and has a readership, that it irks me to hear them piss and moan when they're on the gravy train. A better metaphor might be that the grass would be greener on your side of the fence if you stopped pissing on it.

    Tell anonymous many writers are fond of saying... Shut up and write :)

  15. A post that needed to be written, Heath. Thank you. I will say as a publisher I pimp my books (and others) maybe a little much in the past but have scaled back these days. As a writer, I could never imagine doing post after post on my numbers. Boring and pathetic.